Is Working for Working’s Sake Hurting Everyone in the Workplace?

Spright texts with Sara Austin, Cosmopolitan senior deputy editor, about trends (good and bad) for parents at work

As part of Spright’s ongoing conversation about helping women thrive at both becoming parents and forging their careers, we recently chatted with Sara Austin, senior deputy editor at Cosmopolitan. Sara has worked in publishing for many years and since joining Cosmo, she has overseen increased coverage of careers, health, and women’s issues. Sara also oversees her family, “a husband who is also a journalist and two daughters — a crazy, funny, brave 4-year-old and a smart, sweet, sensitive 8-year-old. They are everything.”

This chat was first published as part of our “Spright Texts With…” series of in-app conversations, where we talk to women about the practical tips, advice, hard conversations, and little things they do to make the juggling act between parenting and career more manageable. It has been edited for length.

Spright: Cosmopolitan has done a lot in recent years to bring some of these big women’s conversations to the forefront. Is that something that was top of mind when you joined the team? How much has being a mom informed your journalistic passions?

Sara Austin: When I met with Joanna Coles, our editor in chief, she had just taken over at Cosmo. I read a ton of back issues to bone up, but when I got the interview I was shocked that she sort of said, “Just forget what’s been done before. What would you do if you could make the magazine you want to read?” It was so exciting! One of the first things she did was run the original excerpt of Lean In and that set the tone for how we were going to cover women’s issues at work — that we were going to both empower women to ask for things like equal pay and mom-friendly benefits, but also agitate for policies that would support them so it’s not on them to make change by themselves. I’ve always been passionate about women’s issues — I was a poli-sci major at UNC — but being a mom has opened my eyes to a lot of new issues or just helped me see new angles.

Spright: How did you decide how much leave was right for you and your family? Do you think the atmosphere has changed in the past few years? What is your advice for young women — in journalism or not — as they consider all the different factors in play in having kids in the middle of the careers?

Sara Austin: I took 12 weeks leave with both my children, which was the most paid leave allowed at the company I worked for. I remember it feeling like not enough the first time around — the second time I was much more laid back and excited to get back to work! I recognize I got more leave than a lot of women. My sister is an adoptive mom and she actually had to leave at job because they offered no maternity leave. And then at her new job, they still only offered a few weeks because it was given under “short term disability,” and she didn’t qualify because she hadn’t gone through childbirth. That’s an example of a policy that really needs to change.

I do see some positive trends for new parents — and one that troubles me. The happy trend is that more parents — men and women — seem to be talking about these issues and raising their expectations for what employers should offer. And you see politicians (many of them women) advocating for work-life policies as well. That’s great — we are a more casual and confessional society and I think it’s only for the good if people bring their whole selves to work and don’t pretend that they don’t have kids they have to pick up at daycare by a certain time. I see a lot more male journalists in our field talking about their kids, even just on social media, and I do think that makes an impact. Ideally they bring that piece of their life into what they choose to cover and how they cover it.

The trend that worries me concerns workload and work hours — my field and many others are powered by amazing and energetic young people in their twenties.

I worry about what happens to these men and women — honestly mostly the women — when/if they decide they want to start families. If we become a field where no one can ever unplug or be off the clock, where the hours are relentless and punishing, and where the pay is pretty low and you are easily replaced once you age out, we become a field that is not a viable option for working moms.

That affects not only the women themselves but the coverage that everyone reads, and if the coverage doesn’t address issues of motherhood, then policies don’t change. Not just in publishing, but our entire culture needs to step back and think about the relentless demands of productivity and efficiency and the way that everyone is checking their work email all night and every weekend.

We need more time to be with our kids and not feel like it will hurt our career. One of my favorite career stories we’ve run was by Allison Yarrow, titled “Do You Really Need to Be Working This Hard?” It suggested that a lot of us overvalue face time and are pretending to be productive when we could really be leaving on time and getting the same amount done. I encourage everyone to think about this issue in their own life. How could I get more uninterrupted family time and less spinning wheels and stressing over work? Don’t think that being overtired and overbusy is a badge of honor — sometimes it’s a sign that you need to reassess, or have a conversation with your boss or your partner.

Spright: Is there any advice you would give yourself looking back at your maternity leaves? What helped you make the transition back to work as smooth as possible?

Sara Austin: If I could change one thing I would have been more laid back during my first leave and less stressed about the baby — but let’s face it, that is never ever going to happen. You can only learn by going through it. In terms of work though, the best thing you can do to make things smoother when you return is take charge in advance of what is going to happen when you are away:

  • Write a detailed memo about your duties so that whomever is filling in for you can hit the ground running.
  • If you are in a position to have a maternity fill in, volunteer to fill the role yourself so you know it’s someone great.
  • Give that person and your supervisor a long update on everything that needs to get done, and the deadlines for getting it done.

It also helped me to work part time the first week so that I felt a little less crushed to be away from the baby — luckily my boss was someone who offered that to all new moms, and now I suggest it to people here. Also, buy yourself a nice new work outfit or handbag that will make you happy to be back in your nice clothes and out of your yoga pants.

Spright: You suggest being proactive about getting that uninterrupted family time and not overworking for the sake of overworking, as so many people do. With your family of two working parents and kiddos that are growing up (which means more games, recitals, teacher meetings, playdates) what are some tactics that work for you in finding that balance, whatever “balance” may mean to you? Are there boundaries you have set at work that you suggest trying?

Sara Austin: “Confidence” is a trite answer — but it actually does solve many problems. Over the years I have psyched myself into being a person who can confidently set limits at work, and at least in my experience I’ve seen that I have not been punished for it. I leave on time, knowing that I have a babysitter at home and it’s disrespectful for me to keep her waiting for my job. I like to leave my desk at lunch — our office is right by Central Park, so I’ll take a sandwich and listen to a podcast and it really relaxes and centers me. We know logically that no one is going to fire us for taking lunch (at most jobs anyway), but sometimes it feels that way and we have to fight through that. Also with two small children I recognize that some other things have to give — I say no to a lot of evening work events that I maybe would have gone to in the past. I try ideally to only be away one night a week, usually to go to the theater with my husband. I want my kids to see me at night at this age, so sometimes our world gets really small, but that’s OK for now.

Finally, if I could tell all new moms to do one thing, it would be to do everything possible to have a 50/50 partnership at home (if you are single mom, this gets harder, obviously!). My husband does an endless list of parenting pick ups, errands, lunch making, laundry, walking the kids to school, being at home nights when I can’t be, and on and on forever.

Sometimes he does things not quite the way I would but if my kids are safe and happy, I just shut up about it. Don’t be a gatekeeper mom that criticizes that way your partner parents or sets up expectations that you are ‘parent A’ or head parent and he is your assistant. Let him learn as you do. Don’t leave him notes on how to do things. He’s not your catsitter, he’s your partner. Guys get (deserved) grief for not stepping up all the time, but I also think that women can do a lot to signal that they both expect and welcome a 50/50 partner. It’s way easier and way more fun when you are truly in it together.

Sara’s favorite Cosmo stories about women and work:

  • After we ran that excerpt of Lean In, we established an ongoing relationship with Sheryl Sandberg and LeanIn.org, so we run special career sections twice a year that she guest edits.
  • We published a giant package on equal pay — exactly how to ask for more money, why we should talk to our friends about what we make, getting over the fear factor. Empowering pep talks are great, but I always want to give super practical advice that you could use like, tomorrow, to get yourself a raise.
  • Michelle Ruiz recently wrote a wonderful piece about exactly what it’s like to go back to work after a baby — I loved it because it showed there is no universal experience and no “right way” to react to a life changing situation. Some women felt more confidence at work, some just wanted to be at home with their baby, some hated being home with their baby. But they all eventually figured out how to make it work.
  • Allison Yarrow’s “Do You Really Need to Be Working This Hard?

For more from Sara, follow her on Twitter and see Cosmo’s coverage of career and parenting.

Follow more “Spright Texts With…” conversations on the Spright app, available now on iTunes. You can also read more from Spright on The Spright Life. Are you back to work, planning on it, or struggling with the decision of whether to return? Spright has solutions for you — and for your company. And if you work in HR, or you can connect us with someone who does, here’s a taste of we can do for companies. Want to know more? Reach out. This is a vital conversation, and we’re here to push it forward.

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